Will the future of logistics also be in the hands of robots? Over the past two years VIL, the Flemish Institute for Logistics, has been running the “Cobots in Logistics” project. This VIL project supplies knowledge to the logistics sector and gives practical experience of what these flexible service robots can offer.
Cobots is short for Collaborative Robots (wiki). These are robots which can be taught simple tasks. This means they can be quickly and easily utilised with limited investment cost. The difference with major industrial robotics is that a cobot still requires human interaction to work. A cobot is therefore perfect for working with people; the ideal partner to work alongside an employee doing his job.
What kind of activities can they be used for?
These robots are particularly suited to a number of activities with little added value, as a replacement for more expensive manpower. They can also increase the efficiency of employees' working hours. For example, a robot can assist in repetitive tasks (packaging, sorting, …) or with the automated processing of certain Value Added Logistics activities such as limited assembly, labelling or putting together packages for e-commerce. The robot can also assist the employee with for instance non-ergonomic activities or heavy loads.
Modern cobots equipped with 3D vision, can pick up selected articles, stack packages of variable sizes based on an optimum stacking pattern or grab randomly placed boxes and set these down in a controlled manner. Demand for such assistance is increasing, among other things due to expanding e-commerce activities, an ever expanding range of products and the need for speedier delivery services. Cobots can ease the pressure on wage costs.
Currently only limited logistic applications
Can they already be used in a logistical context? The VIL project discovered that opportunities for logistic applications were currently limited. Today’s generation of cobots seems to be still too underdeveloped to create any significant impact in the logistics sector. As yet they are not flexible enough to operate effectively in starkly varying logistical environments. Their deployability is still too restricted and demands adjustments in existing logistical processes, such as with standardised packaging or in the way in which goods are transported. Viability largely depends on product type, how often product lines change and on the desired speed.
Cost recovery period between 1.6 and 1.7 years
However, wherever their use becomes a possibility, the cost factor immediately becomes attractive. Capacity equivalent to human workers is feasible and a cobot could also be used flexibly for other tasks. The line does not necessarily need full automation to increase productivity and efficiency and additional human capacity could be released for more complex tasks. The cost recovery period sits between 1.6 and 1.7 years.
In a nutshell: on paper, cobots are the ideal colleagues and an ultimate economical solution for certain logistic processes. However, for the time being we can only await new developments to increase the application opportunities of cobots.